Britain battles clogged streets

In London Monday, motorists began paying an $8-a-day fee to drive downtown.

It has been called the most radical highway experiment since the introduction of traffic lights.

Monday, as London launched an effort to unclog its streets, motorists began paying for the privilege of driving in an eight-square-mile area downtown. With the £5 ($8) a day charge per car, the city hopes to both cut traffic and raise the equivalent of $190 million annually to shore up the city's public transport system.

Major cities around the globe, such as New York and Paris, are watching to see if the world's largest congestion-charging scheme will work.

Though critics have predicted bumper-to-bumper bedlam, there were few signs of gridlock Monday - perhaps because the launch was timed to coincide with the start of a school-holiday week. The only disturbance for many motorists streaming north into the city came from small pockets of protesters huddled in the morning twilight.

"It's a total outrage," says Lawrence Frewin, a real estate agent who relies on his car to do his job. "There are thousands of small businesses that this is seriously going to affect, and they've made no effort whatsoever to find out what the impact is going to be," he says as he flaps leaflets at passing drivers, some of whom honk their approval. "You take a £1,000 pounds [$1,600] off the bottom line a year and what's the point in working?"

Britain is Europe's most congested country; London, Britain's most choked up city. On a bad day, it can take more than an hour to drive from the congestion zone's southern border at Vauxhall Bridge to fashionable Islington on the northern perimeter three miles away.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone - a non-driver who professes to hate cars - hopes that the weekday toll will reduce traffic by at least 15 percent. If successful, he plans to widen the zone by a mile or more eastward and westward.

The chief problem is that the alternatives to cars are dismal. Those who try to skirt the congestion-charge zone will find already clogged perimeter arteries even tighter. And public transport - in decline for decades here - is expected to be swamped with an additional 20,000 commuters a day as motorists leave the roads.

The congestion charge is expected to shunt thousands more passengers on to the unloved, underfunded Tube (subway), which is already struggling to deal with its 3.25 million daily users. Transport officials say the additional volume will only amount to one extra passenger per subway car. But the timing couldn't be worse: One of the main lines is shut until the end of March after an accident in January that injured 32 people.

"It's a disadvantage that the Tube is not in better nick [condition] than it is," says Prof. Stephen Glaister of Imperial College London, who was involved in drafting the original congestion-charge proposals. "It's not going to help the Tube, which is already overcrowded," he says, but adds that, "that in itself is not going to be fatal."

Drivers argue that the new transport system will force them to pay now and reap benefits later. And where the Tube is concerned, it might be much, much later. The network is to get a £16-billion overhaul under a groundbreaking semi-privatization initiative just approved. But it is unclear when that might yield concrete improvements. "Most people say you won't see anything for at least a year," says a London Underground spokeswoman.

Another criticism of the congestion charge is the expense of introducing it - £200 million pounds, - and the expense of maintaining it. "The cost of imposing the charge looks likely to eat up about 70 percent of the revenue," says Prof. Douglas McWilliams, director of the Centre for Economics and Business Research, a think tank. "We think the impact on congestion will be pretty limited. The government estimates a 15 percent reduction for peak-time traffic. We think it's 4 percent.

"It will probably end up as a waste of money rather than a complete disaster," McWilliams adds. "By about the second or third month, it will be an extra imposition yielding no very great benefits."

Not everyone will have to pay. A long list of exemptions and discounts extends to the disabled, residents, taxis, buses, emergency vehicles, and green-fuel cars. Even Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles are technically excused, though they have nobly volunteered to pay. Politicians and diplomats are not exempt, prompting much indignation at the US Embassy, which argues that the "tax" is not applicable to official envoys.

For those not exempt, the payment system is daunting to navigate. A call center set up to deal with queries and payment has been heavily overloaded with 10,000 inquiries a day.

"There may be some teething problems, and they are being dealt with," says Rachel Allen, a spokeswoman for the Transport for London (TfL) body that runs the capital's transport. "A scheme this size and technology of this sort has never been tried anywhere in the world."

Some 800 cameras have been set up at the 174 entry/exit points to the zone. In theory these will record vehicle license plates as they head into or out of the area. A computer system matches numbers to the register of those who have paid. Those who haven't paid by midnight are traced through the government's car licensing body and fined £80.

Even if the technology functions like clockwork, there are loopholes. TfL estimates that 10 percent of vehicles will escape detection. Foreign plates will be hard to pin down. Penalties will be cumbersome to collect.

But of greater concern will be the response from key public sector workers such as nurses and teachers. People on both sides of the argument acknowledge that the congestion charge will also be a heavy burden for the low-paid.

"It is a fact that teachers and nurses and a number of other essential groups are not exempt, and it is going to make it difficult for them to do their jobs," says David Williams, a local government official for the London borough of Merton.

"We have got a problem of too many cars in central London," he says. "But this is taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut."

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